UK seeks direct talks with Iran

Both the UK and Iran are seeking a diplomatic and “early” resolution to the ongoing naval detainee crisis, the prime minister said last night.

Downing Street released an optimistic statement on the ongoing discussions after British officials met with Iran’s chief international negotiator Ali Larijani.

“There have been further contacts between the United Kingdom and Iran this evening, including directly with Dr Ali Larijani,” officials said in a statement.

“On the basis of these, the prime minister believes that both sides share a desire for an early resolution of this issue through direct talks. The prime minister remains committed to resolving this by diplomatic means.”

The government has now proposed direct bilateral discussions between the two nations and it is reported a delegation is now ready to fly to Iran to find a diplomatic resolution to the standoff.

However, the government is still awaiting an Iranian response to the suggestion, and the Foreign Office is yet to receive a reply to a note it sent on Friday.

Both the UK and Iranian government have robustly insisted the crew were in Iraqi and Iranian waters respectively and rejected the other’s invitation to accept their navigational “error”. To avoid one country having to back down, it is thought talks could centre on how a repeat of the situation can be avoided.

President Bush has spoken on the crisis and insisted there will be “no quid pro quos” over hostages, with Iran thought to be seeking the release of five of its citizens taken captive by the US after a raid on the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Arbil.

However, Iraqi foreign ministry officials are reported to be “trying hard” to convince the US to release the five and Iranian diplomat Jalal Sharafi, abducted in Baghdad in February, was released yesterday.

Foreign secretary Margaret Beckett has insisted the UK is not considering the use of force against Iran. Her reassurance followed the prime minister’s warning yesterday that the UK would have to take “increasingly tough decisions” if Iran did not respond to its diplomatic efforts.

“We are not seeking confrontation,” Ms Beckett said. “We are seeking to pursue this through diplomatic channels”.

The foreign secretary also cautioned against hopes for a swift resolution to the crisis. She was speaking after Iran released a further picture of the crew, the first to show the 15 personnel out of uniform and seemingly relaxing.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to give a press conference today.